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Led By Kegasus, Preakness Scores Big Crowd

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Horses circle back around after a race at the 2011 Preakness stakes in Maryland.
Patrick Madden
Horses circle back around after a race at the 2011 Preakness stakes in Maryland.

The crowd at Pimlico for this weekend's race topped 107,000 people: far and away the largest crowd since organizers decided a few years back to reduce the Preakness's traditional debauchery by banning fans from bringing in their own alcohol.

Holding a giant funnel filled with beer over his head at this year's race, John Camarata explains that even he thought the infield at the Preakness was getting out-of-control a few years back.

"They got rid of the riff-raff," he says. "It's a more controlled environment, and you can still rip a beer bong!" says Camarata.

He pauses the interview, chugs the beer through the funnel, and holding it like a horn, mimics the official mascot of this years race: the half-man, half-horse, Kegasus.

Race organizers say the decision to, as some on the infield were calling it, bring the "freakness" back to the Preakness was strictly business.

While the ban on outside booze remains in place, the marketing for this year's race was an unapologetic attempt to lure the younger crowd back with beer specials, live music, and a party-like atmosphere.

"We have to attract the 20- to 35-year-olds," says Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chukas. "Now, they may not come originally for racing but it's good for us financially for us to have them out here for Preakness day and if we can get a percentage of them back, it starts to rebuild the base."

But the marketing campaign earned its share of critics. Some horse racing traditionalists called it degrading. Others, such as Cindy Olsczewski, found the whole thing tacky.

"They were going to try and use the easiest way that they could to get people to come out and they did that," says Olsczewski.

Chukas says he respects the opinions of critics, but counters that he has a business to run.

"The racing aficiandos and the older people, they don't like Kegadus but it was never created for them," he says.

If Chuckas had a poster child for his plan, it might be Debbie Nemcek, who remembers first coming to Preakness for the parties in the infield.

"It started for me there," says Nemcek. "Now I am all grown up and big girl now and I am still coming, we've just gotten a little higher up."

"Higher up," as in the pricey grandstand section, where the only horses that matter -- sorry, Kegasus -- are on the track.

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